This year’s hurricanes made it crystal clear: Whether it be a natural disaster like the one wreaked by Katrina along the Gulf Coast or an act of terrorism that destroys the infrastructure of a whole community, communication is critical for an effective emergency response.
Officials at every level — from local emergency workers to state and federal personnel — have to react in a coordinated manner via a communication network that is available when phones and computers go down.
And that really only means one thing: satellite phones. As demonstrated in the aftermath of Katrina, satellite technology, both as used by TV networks and individual users, was the only reliable means of communication when everything else was knocked out.
Problem is, satellite phones are fine for one-to-one communication, but less good when it comes to developing the networks necessary to effective emergency management.
And that’s where Emil Innocenti comes in. Seeing these problems, the New Jersey-based textile dealer and music producer decided to take the time out of his day job to come up with a solution. The result: a combination of satellite technology and the Internet called the Emergency Response Information Network (E.R.I.N.), a platform for schools, municipalities and businesses to use in emergency situations.
One-stop shopping information center
"The thought occurred to me after 9/11,” Innocenti said. “If land lines and cellular went down, how would the school my daughter was attending be able to communicate with the outside world? Would they be able to contact emergency services if they needed assistance?
“The answer was they could not, and even if they had the foresight to own a satellite phone.”
What the E.R.I.N. system does is couple the vast information resources of the Internet with a satellite phone system to create an emergency response tool.
The E.R.I.N. system includes real-time weather radar and warnings, coastal and hurricane conditions, real time air traffic and public transit conditions, live radio and web-TV news, as well as a multitude of government agency contacts on its Web site.
“The ERIN Network and its peripheral services are triple-redundant and reach out to back up servers out of the country," Innocenti said.
In an emergency, a satellite phone user can link into the network to get up-to-date information. It also provides the ability to organize conference calls, live chats or Web conferencing.
"It's great, it consolidates many links to one site,” said Rus Lefkus, the senior supervisor for safety and loss prevention with Wakefern Foods, owner of 190 ShopRite grocery stores in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Connecticut.
“E.R.I.N. gives you most of your contacts, whether it be transit, or OEM (Office of Emergency Management), plus Homeland Security, FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) or the Center for Disease Control. It's one stop shopping for emergency information," Lefkus said.
Making informed decisions
To create the system, Innocenti teamed up with Tom Capone of My Technology Partners (MTP), a New Jersey company.
"What is really needed in any emergency is communication with the ability to access enough information to make an informed decision,” Innocenti said. “A term used by the military called 'Situational Awareness.’”
But while satellite phones deliver voice, data, and fax messages, Innocenti felt that was not enough. He wanted to be able to link to the Internet.
"Using the ‘data port’ on their sat phones they can access the E.R.I.N. Web site which looks like a control room of a top secret agency," Innocenti explained. In this way, a subscriber can track the news, weather, and traffic conditions during an emergency and even create emergency meetings.
“E.R.I.N. users can now dial into a satellite audio conference with up to 99 other users in their town or company simultaneously to evaluate or coordinate an effective response,” Innocenti said.
Free for schools and local government
The cost of E.R.I.N. is free for schools and municipalities. All they need to do is go to the web site and register.
Joe Martino, the Superintendent of Schools in Linden, N.J., explained that after 9/11 his district was very concerned about the ability to communicate. After investigating the system, they decided to get involved.
"Our mayor thought enough of it to include it in his own department, as well as the police emergency management,” Martino said.
The service seems to be catching and expanding nationally. "In the New York area we provide service to corporations such as The New York Maritime Association, ADP (Automatic Data Processing), Novartis, WakefernFood and a growing number of municipalities all the way to the Los Angeles Fire Department Mobile Command Units," Capone said.
Meanwhile, the debate about the importance of implementing a satellite phone system for disaster relief is also causing buzz in Washington.
Businesses and local and state governments within the U.S. are now being prompted to comply with the “Standard on Disaster /Emergency Management and Business Continuity Programs” which requires emergency communications to be in place for disaster recovery.
In September, Kevin Martin, the chairman of the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC), told lawmakers that satellite technology has a key role in disaster relief efforts due to the vulnerability of terrestrial communications infrastructure.
Martin explained that the damage report during Katrina included almost three million telephone lines knocked down, 38 emergency 9-1-1 call centers disabled, more than 25 million calls failed, and hundreds of thousands of customers without cable television. But, through the chaos, satellite telephones worked.
Mona Zughbi is an Assignment Editor on the NBC News Network Desk.